Vietnam: the necessary voices

Sophie Quinn-Judge
29 April 2007

The intertwined lives of two recently departed Vietnamese reveal a lot about the country's politics today. The first was a former Catholic priest, Nguyen Ngoc Lan, who passed away in February 2007 after several years of ill health. The second was a veteran communist, Tran Bach Dang (the alias of Truong Gia Trieu), who died on 16 April.

Nguyen Ngoc Lan was an intellectual who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on the philosophy of science; Tran Bach Dang became editor of a communist publication in 1946 at the age of 20, and later served as secretary of the Saigon-Gia Dinh zone during the American war, where he played a unique role as mobiliser of the urban movement. The two men were allies in the fight against the Americans; but in the long, painful aftermath of 30 April 1975 they became mutual critics, as Lan's disillusionment with the communist government grew in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet before his own death, Tran Bach Dang wrote the only official obituary for Nguyen Ngoc Lan published in Vietnam.

Sophie Quinn-Judge is associate director of the Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society, Temple University, Philadelphia. She is the author of Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919-1941 (C Hurst, 2003)

Also by Sophie Quinn-Judge in openDemocracy:

"Who are the Vietnamese in 2005?" (29 April 2005)

Lan had never recovered from what witnesses say was an accident provoked by unidentified thugs in May 1998. As he and his long-time friend Father Chan Tin were setting off for the funeral of a fellow dissident, Nguyen Van Tran, they were knocked off their motorbike and beaten up. Lan struck his head on the ground, and apparently suffered some kind of permanent trauma. The exact cause of his deterioration after the accident was never determined, his wife says (he had left the priesthood and married after 1975, to become a common citizen.) He dropped to a skeletal thirty-five kilograms and was unable to concentrate enough to continue his writing career.

That career had outlasted numerous journals and newspapers, which in both the old Saigon and the post-1975 Ho Chi Minh City were closed down by the government in power, one after another. The best-known of these was the Catholic-sponsored journal Doi Dien (In Opposition), which Lan continued to publish as Dung Day (Rise Up) under the communist government, until December 1978.

Thinking through change

Tran Bach Dang and Nguyen Ngoc Lan first met in March 1968, as the first phase of the Tet offensive was quieting down, in a party command centre outside of Saigon. Lan was part of a small delegation of urban intellectuals invited to exchange views with the communist leadership. At one point in the trip, a United States patrol forced them to hide in water-filled bunkers. Dang learned to admire the honesty and optimism of Father Lan, and Lan continued to view the US-led war as the greatest evil facing Vietnam at that time. His empathy with the "brothers and sisters of the other side" grew out of his concern for the poor, which had become official Catholic doctrine following the Vatican II council. Yet he remained a non-party intellectual, whose passion for justice was combined with a radical commitment to honesty. When accused of writing like a communist, he replied that, what concerned him most of all was that he not write any words that would shame him before his forefathers.

Tran Bach Dang was a strong-willed nationalist as much as a communist. He was criticised by the party for arranging a prisoner exchange with the United States embassy in 1968. But his action probably saved the lives of several leading members of the National Liberation Front, including his own wife. After 1975 his career was not as smooth as some might have predicted. He spent time in Hanoi for ideological study, and became deputy director of the central committee's mass mobilisation department until 1980, when he faded from view.

The early 1980s were an uneasy time in the south, as the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia took shape and cautious reforms began, undoing the earlier efforts at collectivisation. Different factions in the top leadership disagreed as to how to deal with Ho Chi Minh City, some party leaders clearly fearing the city's freewheeling ways and economic power. The one remaining non-Party newspaper, Tin Sang (The Morning News) had been closed down in June 1980. So when Tran Bach Dang returned to prominence in 1985, with a series of articles on Ho Chi Minh City and the south in the official party paper Nhan Dan (The People), this event seemed to mark the rehabilitation of both the city and the man. The reform process known as doi moi (reconstruction) began at the sixth party congress in 1986.

The economic-reform process has continued in fits and starts until the present - Vietnam is now a member of the WTO, with an economic growth-rate that is luring once-shy western investors. But the beginnings of intellectual and political reform were curtailed by 1989, as the communist bloc was falling apart and the Chinese were clamping down on democracy protests. New laws on the press that year closed the door on press freedom in Vietnam, as the communist party reasserted its monopoly over political life.

Also on modern Vietnam in openDemocracy:

Pham Thi Hoài, "What remains: Vietnam in my heart" (29 April 2005)

Philip Jones Griffiths, "'Viet Nam at peace': the empire strikes back" (29 April 2005)

Li Datong, "Will China follow Vietnam's lead? " (21 February 2007)

Nguyen Ngoc Lan never stopped protesting this turn of events. From 1990 to 1994 he was placed under house arrest, but as soon as restrictions on his movement were lifted, he took up where he had left off. In a 1994 article for Radio France International, he described freedom of the press as "the breath of our society and country". The party-controlled press that remained in Vietnam he dismissed as "useless" to the party - because it was so boring and untrustworthy that the people don't bother to read it.  

In a 1998 article printed in an overseas Vietnamese-language journal, Tin Nha (News from Home), Lan made Tran Bach Dang one of his targets. Dang had criticised a number of dissidents for writing critical articles that got picked up by the BBC Vietnamese language service. This was an old story, Lan wrote: in 1969, in the days of the Saigon government, he had been summoned by the security services for questioning about his articles, which could be "used (taken advantage of) by the communists". It was an attack based on the tenet that to criticise the ruling political party is to criticise the Vietnamese nation. He didn't accept that idea in 1969 or in 1998. Lan, finally, could not escape his role as dissident, and became known as stubborn and extreme (what the Russians would call "an inconvenient man"). Tran Bach Dang, on the other hand, remained the party soldier, and finally settled into a quiet retirement of writing plays, novels, and film scripts. His obituary in the party newspaper Thanh Nien (Youth) makes almost no mention of his wartime political activities.  

The seeds of change

These two men - Nguyen Ngoc Lan, the purist, and Tran Bach Dang, the compromiser - represent a spectrum of commitment to their nation that should, logically, be embraced. But as the Vietnamese party enters the WTO era, it apparently feels the need to present a monolithic political face to the world. The arrests of activists associated with Bloc 8406, a group devoted to freedom of opinion formed before the tenth party congress of 2006, is the party's way of reminding the public that there has been no political reform in Vietnam. The inconvenient men and women like Nguyen Ngoc Lan will continue to pay a high price for honesty, while the compromisers will search for ways to quietly push the system towards change. One of these ways will be the publication of Nguyen Ngoc Lan's collected writings; his reputation is sure to grow in the years to come. And perhaps someday the Vietnamese will find a way to assimilate the talents and ideas of its truth-tellers while they are still alive.

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